The government of President Macron has proposed a series of changes to unemployment benefits. The context is very different to the UK. Unemployment benefits are not run by the government, but by Unédic, a formal consortium of employers and trades unions. The benefits are contributory and related to previous income (which makes them generous by comparison with UK benefits); they get reduced for longer periods of unemployment.
The proposed reform makes three substantial changes. First, it will extend unemployment benefits for the first time to the self-employed. Second, employees will not longer be excluded from claiming if they have given up their previous work voluntarily. The government is justifying this by suggesting that it offers people the opportunity to start a business. At this stage, it’s not clear whether that will be a formal condition; if it’s not, there are others who may find different uses for it. (The Thatcher government in the UK used to have a separate system of support for small business start ups, and one person I knew at the time was funded to become a successful writer of comedy.)
Third, there will be new sanctions; a person who refuses two reasonable offers of employment will have benefits halved. That’s a little more leeway than claimants in the UK get, where claimants are driven to destitution for missing an appointment. A report yesterday gives two examples of people having benefits stopped for the serious offence of being in hospital at the wrong time.
The French government has announced that their system of housing benefit will be reformed this autumn. The minister, Jacques Mézard, is reported in Le Monde as saying:
We have a budget for APL (Aides personnalisées au logement) of 19 billion euros, a budget for all housing benefits of 30 billion euros, the highest in Europe, with a corollary: not enough housing and rents that are too high. … For one euro more spent on APL, 78 centimes goes on higher rents. We have to get out of this perverse system.
When housing benefits were first introduced in the UK, in the form of “Rent Allowance” and “Rent Rebate”, policy makers had been impressed by the French argument for subsidising low incomes rather than bricks and mortar – “aide à la personne” instead of “aide à la pierre“. As in France, it’s led to higher costs, more complex administration, higher rents and often the exclusion of low income families from decent housing. It was a mistake then, and it’s still a mistake now.
I spent the back half of last week in Lyon for a forum on the ‘disability sector’. It was an international conference. I was there to explain alien aspects of the British system, such as care packages, personalisation and welfare reform; others were there from Norway, Germany and Italy. I’ve had to learn some new vocabulary – for example, that people with disabilities are no longer personnes handicapées but personnes en situation de handicap, and learning disability is sometimes (but not always) rendered by handicap intellectuel, sometimes by les personnes ayant des difficultés d’apprentissage. Beyond that, there’s always the problem that professionals in France routinely talk in acronyms, such as the ESMS (établissements et services médico-sociaux) or the CPOM (contrat pluriannuel d’objectifs et de moyens) – I’ve only deciphered that one after coming home and looking it up, and I still don’t know what it really means. There were interpreters at hand, so I chickened out and spoke in English.
It’s more of a culture shock to understand some of the differences in provision. None of the agencies represented, in a conference with more than 300 managers attending, dealt with older people. France still makes heavy use of residential care for younger disabled people. There was also a moment of incomprehension when the German speaker asked about the representation of people with disabilities in monitoring groups and got an answer about institutional accountability instead. However, there’s a level of funding that many people in the UK would find enviable.
It’s not me who says so. Marisol Touraine, the French minister for Health and Social Affairs, explained that the budget for social security – which combines health and social security benefits – would reduce the deficit to a measly 9.7 billion euros. The French have lived so long with le trou de la Sécu – the hole in the Social – that they’re really quite used to it. As reported in Le Monde, Mme Touraine explained:
The deficit in Social Security will pass next year below the 10 billion mark: this is half of what it was at the end of the previous presidential term of office. We can be proud of that.
The parliament of Jamaica has agreed to seek reparations for slavery from the UK. I feel some disquiet about this argument. Part of that is personal, and it has nothing to do with slavery directly. In the great lottery of life, some people get to be oppressors and some get to be oppressed. My ancestors have largely fallen in the class of the oppressed, which was a great misjudgment on their part, because as we all know the other side generally comes out of it better. My father and my grandfather had to leave France. My great-grandfather had to leave Germany. My great-great grandfather had to leave Posnan. That’s four generations of injustice – and four potential claims for reparations. But they’re gone, and few are left. Should I be compensated for that? I’m not the one who suffered. Why should later generations of Europeans, who had no part in past evils, be forced to pay? The money has blood on it: would I want it? And does the claim make any sense anyway? If the Nazis hadn’t invaded the rest of Europe, my father and mother would never have met, and I wouldn’t exist. A demand for reparations is a demand to unmake history.
The argument for reparations depends on the view that that the United Kingdom, collectively, is morally bound to redress the wrongs it has committed. That may sound superficially appealing, but it has some perverse implications. My family didn’t benefit from slavery; they were nowhere near Britain at the time. It’s possible to argue, of course, that in coming to Britain, they joined the club, and might be said to have accepted responsibility for its actions. If the residents of Britain do have collective responsibility, however, the same argument must extend to the descendants of the slaves who came from Jamaica to Britain. Are we going to make them pay reparations, too? Then, perhaps, we should consider the way that the Jamaican economy was founded on slavery. Shouldn’t they be paying reparations to Africa? What about the African slavers, who captured and sold their compatriots into slavery? Shouldn’t their descendants be paying compensation to their descendants in the USA? Where does this end?
There is hardly anywhere in the world where the current distribution has not been influenced by injustice, oppression, exploitation or denial of rights: most of humanity have been treated badly for most of history. Attempting to redraw the lines of history really doesn’t make any moral sense. People can’t be held morally responsible for the actions of their distant ancestors either individually or collectively. Wherever people are disadvantaged, there is a case to redress the balance, but that case is based in disadvantage now, not the ill-treatment of the past. The world is as it is; what matters is what we do next.
It’s not only in the UK that the principle of universality has been called into question. The French government has said it is committed to universality – but the main option being considered is means-testing to limit the value of the benefits to the better-off, which is rather a strange interpretation of what ‘universality’ might imply. The Fragonard report has reviewed several options for cutting family allowances, introduced in the 1930s. It’s not an easy read. The basic model seems to be based on a means test which will reduce benefits by different formulas, and the alternatives being considered are for different thresholds. (Before anyone asks, no, I don’t understand the formulas. The report explains: “In this system, household income is divided into parts and the progressive scale is applied not to the income but to the parts of income.”) A Le Monde article shows how it all works out. More than two-thirds of a poll sample agree that the benefits should be means-tested.
They do things differently in France, of course. Opposition to cutting universal benefits, according to Le Monde, comes from the political right. And it seems the issue is being linked politically with the idea of gay marriage, which is something of a conceptual leap.